— BugsInTheNews is a VIEWER-PARTICIPANT WEBSITE. This article by Jerry Cates, Margaret Archer, and Darryl Archer, first published on 10 September 2011, was last revised on 8 July 2012. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 12:09(2).
On Labor Day, 5 September 2011, while on a research project in Garland, Texas, my cell phone rang. On answering, Darryl Archer, of Manvel, Texas (a town of 7,000, some 24 miles due south of Houston), spoke the following words to me:
“Hi, Mr. Cates… my wife just got bit by a snake in our back yard, and I’m hoping you can help me identify what bit her.”
“Describe the snake,” I told him.
“It’s a baby snake, with brown and black markings on its belly, brown markings on its sides that alternate with lighter brown markings, and the darker brown markings have small black spots in them. Plus, it has a yellow tail.”
“Stop right there,” I told him, “and tell me about your wife. How badly did she get bitten?”
“Not badly. In fact, she thinks the fangs only nicked her skin because she was wearing cotton gloves and the snake had to bite through them.”
“That’s good,” I said. “The snake you described is one of our vipers, specifically a cottonmouth. Both it and the copperhead have yellow tails as juveniles, and not one of our other North American snakes has that unique feature. The copperhead has pinkish, copper-colored markings, not the black and brown markings like you described, which are characteristic of the cottonmouth.”
“She’s lucky she was wearing gloves,” I continued, “because the venom in a juvenile cottonmouth is often much more potent than that of a mature specimen. Fortunately, most close-weave fabrics, like that of a cotton glove and especially that of denim jeans, are pretty good at reducing the depth of penetration when a viper bites through them. And because the venom ejection orifice in a viper’s fang is not at the very tip, but some distance up the dorsal surface of the fang shaft, much of the venom will be absorbed in the fabric instead of the bite wound.”
“Can you make out two fang marks?” I asked.
“Yes,” Darryl answered. “One isn’t very deep, but the other is deeper, and a small amount of blood is there, on her finger.”
Note the pair of whitish spots on Margaret’s finger in the photo at left. the mark on the left is a pinpoint (suggesting the fang penetrated the skin a bit), while the one on the right is a dash (as if that fang grazed the skin but didn’t puncture the skin). Darryl took this photo just before calling me, and though some minor swelling can be seen, it’s nothing like what would be expected of a serious bite from a cottonmouth.
“How long ago did this bite occur?”
“It’s been about 45 minutes to an hour. We were searching the Internet to see if we could identify the snake, but weren’t having any luck. Then we called a friend, Mark Turvey, who gave us your phone number.”
“Is there any swelling?”
“No,” Darryl said. “Well, maybe a tiny bit, and she feels a little pain but nothing bad.”
“Most of the venom might have been absorbed by the glove,” I told him. “Or, as sometimes happens, the snake didn’t deliver a wet bite. Dry bites are relatively common, especially in larger, more mature specimens. More often, with a juvenile, the bite will be wet, but swelling and pain usually manifest at the wound site within minutes. After an hour with little in the way of swelling and pain, I’d suspect that very little venom was injected into her finger.”
This is why I vigorously encourage people to wear leather boots that cover the ankle and, at minimum, 12 inches of calf, with denim trousers over the boots covering the rest of the leg, when walking in the back yard, hiking in the park or in the wilderness, or while in the great outdoors for whatever reason. Thick tight-weave denim is best, rather than thin, loose-weave or well-worn fabric that is unlikely to lessen the travel of a snake’s fangs during a strike. Folklore teaches that snake fangs can penetrate just about anything, no matter how thick or tough it is. Consequently, many people assume any attempt to protect their legs and hands from snake bite will be fruitless, but that simply isn’t true. A snake’s fangs are made of hollow, relatively thin bone-like material that — by comparison with solid bone — is not particularly sturdy. A snake’s fangs last only a few weeks before they have to be replaced, as they are easily broken and damaged during the snake’s natural foraging and predatory activities. They are specially constructed to penetrate the tender skin and flesh of a rodent, not a denim-covered boot. Thus, in most cases it doesn’t take much to prevent them from reaching your skin. But heaven help you if your skin is bare…
Darryl preserved the snake (Margaret killed it soon after the bite occurred) in alcohol, and is sending it, along with the cotton glove she was wearing at the time, to me for analysis in the lab. As soon as these arrive additional photos will be taken under the microscope and added to this web page report.Darryl took the photos shown here shortly after the snake was placed in the alcohol.
UPDATE 13 SEPTEMBER 2011:
Darryl wrote me the following terse and pithy note:
Margaret got bit on her pinky finger by an 11-inch cottonmouth juvenile, and we are at Clear Lake Hospital.
I had Darryl’s cell phone number, and called him as soon as the message came in. He explained that, after Margaret’s earlier experience with the cottonmouth snake, described above, she was extra careful when gardening and out in the yard. This afternoon, while tidying up the front porch, she noticed that a potted elephant ear plant had lost a few more leaves. The pot was elevated off the porch floor, on thin, spindly legs that she reasoned a snake would find nearly impossible to navigate, so it seemed safe to reach into the pot to pull out the dead leaves.
Wrong move… An 11-inch juvenile cottonmouth was in the pot, and bit her little finger. This time she wasn’t wearing any gloves, but — luckily — the fangs only nicked the skin, as before, with the earlier experience.
Darryl is sending me photos of the potted plant, and the structure it is on. He also saved the (now dead) cottonmouth to send me with the earlier specimen, and this time the head is intact so it will be possible to do a thorough microscopic assay of the fangs, mouth, and head.
Margaret’s finger is swollen slightly, but no more than before, so the doctors concluded she did not require a round of antivenin.
Then Darryl asked the magic question:
“What can we do to get rid of these snakes in our yard? Is there anything that works? If so. what do you recommend?”
His question almost floored me. I had been so engrossed in the biology of the snake that had bitten his wife just last week, that I’d neglected to have a detailed discussion with him about my articles on Snake Exclusion and PestAvoidance. And because we had not gone over that material together, his wife got bitten again, by another snake, possibly from the same litter that the earlier specimen had come from.
One of my many projects involves developing granular and liquid habitat modifiers capable of producing an environment that doesn’t attract or nurture pests, including snakes, scorpions, insects, and spiders. These products are described on another website of mine. Along with those products, that website also explains the related concepts of Habitat Modification and PestAvoidance.
After talking with Darryl, I put links to all those pages in the reference list below. But I’m also adding the links to this paragraph, so those who want to look those pages over, after reading about Margaret’s latest episode, can do so right from this location:
(3) Habitat Modification;
After reading through each of these pages, Darryl should have a good idea about the ways he can rid his yard of the snakes that are troubling his family. But we won’t let it rest there. He and I, along with Margaret, will be working closely together to ensure all the right steps are taken to deal with this problem. And we’ll report on it right here, as those steps are carried out.
Notice items (5) and (6). These are the granular and liquid products I’ve been developing to take the habitat modification concept forward. They are not pesticides, repellents, or pest mitigants. Instead of killing, repelling, or mitigating pests, they simply produce an environment that doesn’t attract or nurture pests and — in the process — create PestAvoidance zones that are virtually pest free. And it isn’t a pipe dream. It works well, and we have several years of laboratory and field testing to prove it, including two years of field testing with some of the nastiest pests known to man (specifically, snakes and scorpions).
Marketing is still in its infancy (I’m an investigator, not a salesman), but we’re gaining ground on that despite my lack of sales acumen. Same with product warehousing, shipping, and the infrastructure that goes with all that. If you want any of these products right now, you’ll have to deal with me directly rather than ordering on-line the way it should be done. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. But we’re moving forward, and my expectations are that in a few more months we’ll be out of the woods on all the little odds and ends involved in getting these things produced and marketed the way the big boys do it.
In the meantime… well, just try to bear with me.
Taxonomy: See my article on a mature specimen of this species for taxonomical information.
Anatomy: Cottonmouths and copperheads are in the same genus (Agkistrodon) and the juveniles of both have sulfur-yellow tail-tips. The juveniles position the tips of their tails up in the air, over their heads, and wave them to lure frogs and insects to their locations so they can prey on them. As these snakes age, they become capable of hunting down prey, and the need for the yellow tail lure diminishes. Accordingly, their tails darken until, when they reach a length of 18-24 inches, most if not all of the yellow coloration is lost.
Behavior: in process
Common Names: in process
Distinguishing Characteristics: Markings on the body of the juvenile cottonmouth are much more pronounced than on mature specimens. The markings consist of broad well-defined crossbands of grayish brown, dark brown, or black, each of which is lighter in its center, dark edged, and sometimes narrowly edged in white on its jagged outer margins, especially along the sides. One authority (Werler and Dixon, 2000) points out that some juvenile cottonmouths are altogether patternless, being solid black or solid dark brown; such cottonmouths are found most frequently along the Gulf Coast populations. That same authority also reports that the newborn cottonmouth bears little resemblance to its parents, but for the first year of life looks remarkably like a young copperhead.
Distribution: Three subspecies are recognized within the species we now call the Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). These are (1) the eastern cottonmouth (A. p. piscivorus), which is the type species described by Lacépède and the largest of the three; it is found in southestern Virginia, the Atlantic Coastal Plain, and the lower Piedmont of North and South Carolina and coastal Georgia; (2) the Florida cottonmouth (A. p. conanti), a medium-sized snake found in southern Georgia and Florida; and (3) the western cottonmouth (A. p. leucostoma), the smallest of the three, found in southern Alabama, along the Gulf coast and offshore islands of that coast, to southeastern and central Texas, north to Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Our specimen, the western cottonmouth, was first described by Gerald Troost, in 1836. Troost, an American-Dutch naturalist, constructed the subspecies name, leucostoma, using the Greek words λευκος (leukos = white) + στομα (stoma = mouth) as a reference to the bright-white coloration of the interior of the snake’s oral cavity.
Physiology: in process
Mythology: in process
Similar Families: in process
Related Links on BugsInTheNews:
- North American Snake Markings & Coloration Guide.
- Ophidian Dentition — Snake Teeth & Fangs — Morphology & Specialization
- Snake Anatomy, Physiology, and Taxonomy.
- Snake Exclusion — How to Snake-proof your Yard and Home.
- Snake Repellents — How, and How Well, do They Work?
- Snakebite First Aid.
- Snakes, Rodents, & Droughts.
- What is Meant by “A Reasonably Snake-Free Environment”?
- Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius tener); John H., Dripping Springs, Texas — 01 May 2010
- Cottonmouths & Copperheads in Travis and Harris Counties, Texas — June to August, 2010
- Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma, Troost 1836); Tammy D., Santa Fe, TX — 28 Aug 2011
- Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox, Baird & Girard, 1853), Cedar Creek, TX — 22 Oct 2010.
References to Scientific Articles, Books, and Papers:
- Arikan, Hüseyin et al. 2008. Electrophoretic characterisation of the venom samples obtained from various Anatolian snakes(Serpentes: Colubridae, Viperidae, Elapidae). N.W. J. Zool. Vol. 4, No. 1, pp.16-28.
- Birchard, Geoffrey F., et al., 1984. Foetal-Maternal Blood Respiratory Properties of an Ovoviviparous Snake; the Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus. J. exp. Biol. 108, 247-25
- Chao, Betty H., et al. 1989. Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus platelet aggregation inhibitor: A potent inhibitor of platelet activation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 86, pp. 8050-8054
- Chippaux, J. P., et al. 1991. Snake Venom Variability: Methods of study, results, and Interpretation. Toxicon Vol. 29, No. I I , pp. 1279-1303.
- Conant, Roger, and Joseph T. Collins, 1998. Reptiles and Amphibians — Eastern/Central North America, Third Ed. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Cundall, David. 2009. Viper Fangs: Functional Limitations of Extreme Teeth. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 82(1):63–79.
- Deufel, Alexandra, and David Cundall. 2004.Functional plasticity of the venom delivery system in snakes with a focus on the poststrike prey release behavior. Zoologischer Anzeiger 245 (2006) 249–267
- Grachevca, Elena, et al., 2010. Molecular Basis for Infrared Detection by Snakes. Nature, 15 April 2010.
- Greene, Harry W., 1997. Snakes: the Evolution of Mystery in Nature. University of California Press.
- Schulz, Klaus-Dieter, 1996. A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger. Koeltz Scientific Books.
- Tennant, Alan,1998. A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, Second Ed. Gulf Publishing.
- Weinstein, Scott A., et al. 1994.Reptile Venom Glands — Form, Function, and Future. Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles. CRC Press.
- Werler, John E., and James R. Dixon, 2000. Texas Snakes. University of Texas Press.
- World Health Organization. 2002. Management of Snakebite and Research. WHO SEA-RES-2.
- Zaidan, Frederick III, 2002. Variation in cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma) resting metabolic rates. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A 134 (2003) 511–523
- Zamudio, Kelly R., et al., 2000. Fang tip spread, puncture distance, and suction for snake bite. Toxicon 38 (2000) 723 – 72.
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